Feeling not good enough

We may not realise it, but many problematic behaviours arise from the way we cope with feeling not good enough. We all feel this way at times and can mostly manage those feelings and recover reasonably quickly. At some times in our lives, or for some people, however, there is more difficulty in regaining or maintaining a comfortable emotional equilibrium. We may say our confidence has been knocked or that we suffer from low self-esteem. Some of us cope by ignoring or repressing the feelings, which can result in seeming over-confident or arrogant.

Dr Donald Nathanson identified four ways of managing not good enough feelings:

  • withdrawal

  • attack self

  • avoidance

  • attack other.

Using withdrawal, you probably try to stay out of the spotlight, maybe wishing you could disappear. In extreme cases this may mean being unable to face people at all. Attack self is a similar strategy, whereby someone puts themselves down either privately or openly, perhaps using self-mocking humour. This can make the person seem well ‘able to take a joke’, so others may feel it’s OK to tease them. Unfortunately, for some people this may actually feel devastating, so that what others consider to be gentle joshing seems like confirmation of the awfulness. In extreme cases, people may actually self-harm.

Both the withdrawal and the attack self coping strategies involve conscious awareness of feeling not good enough. In avoidance and attack other the person has distanced themselves from the not good enough feelings, sometimes to the extent that they seem grandiose or super confident.

Someone using withdrawal may be able to keep their negative feelings at bay by being extremely busy – or ‘driven’ – and enjoying an adrenaline buzz from risky sports or activities. This can become addictive and may be associated with other behaviours which mask the unwanted feelings, such as heavy drinking, drug use, compulsive shopping, gambling or use of porn. Alternatively, or additionally, the person may show off or draw attention to their achievements. What’s actually happening is that the person is unconsciously deflecting attention from their negative not good enough areas towards more successful aspects of themselves.

People using attack self and withdrawal often have highly perfectionist tendencies too which, with withdrawal particularly, can sometimes involve low tolerance for mistakes in others. The attack other way of coping always involves some sort of shaming put-down and derision, often provoked by anger at any sort of snub, whether this is real or imagined, deliberate or unintentional. Some people using this strategy are not overtly critical but may use more subtle or ‘passive-aggressive’ tactics to unsettle people. Generally, they don’t respond well to criticism themselves and don’t accept blame or responsibility.

As the first two categories are within conscious awareness, they are easier to change and less likely to affect other people, though those using them may feel very bad about themselves. The attack other and withdrawal strategies are much harder to change as they are outside conscious awareness, and may not feel like a problem to anyone who employs them. However, they may affect relationships, as others often feel criticised or that the relationship is unequal. Compulsive behaviours or relationship issues are consequently what often bring people to counselling rather than an awareness of not feeling good enough. Unfortunately, the kind of soothing relationship they need in order to let go of these strategies is unlikely to develop because of them. This, in itself, may trigger not good enough feelings which have to be defended against, so that the attack other and withdrawal behaviours become intensified.

All of us feel not good enough at times and, to some extent, we have probably all used these four strategies to cope. It’s only when they become severe and habitual that they are a problem, and then it’s time to consider counselling.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, HP19
Written by Cate Campbell, MA, PGDip (PST), MBACP (Accred), AccCOSRT, EMDR EuropeAccred
Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, HP19

Cate Campbell is a counsellor specialising in relationships.

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